As the internet has become an integral part of modern life the stereotype that older generations tend to avoid using the web has become less and less relevant.

However a new study shows that senior citizens still find websites difficult to use and have a significantly lower success rate when it comes to completing tasks online.

The Nielsen Norman Group ran a series of usability tests on 29 websites among 31 people aged older than 65. The results were then compared to control group of 20 users aged 21-55.

It found that among senior web users the success rate for completing tasks was 55.3% compared to 74.5% among the younger age group.

Time spent on the tasks was also significantly lower at seven minutes 49 seconds for seniors and five minutes 28 seconds for younger users.

Based on the higher success rate of younger users, this study suggests that ecommerce sites could potentially increase their sales among older customers by up to 35% if they improved the user experience.

And the issue is even more pressing due to the fact that seniors are also more likely to abandon a task rather than try a different option.

Almost half (45%) of seniors in the study showed behaviours that indicated they were uncomfortable trying new things or were hesitant to try an alternate option if they failed their first attempt at a task.

The younger users in the control group were twice as likely as older users to try more and different methods – such as site search or online chat – to find the answers to their questions or to complete tasks.

To this end, the report suggests several ways of making it easier for older users to complete tasks online…

Increase the font size

Vision is known to diminish with age yet often sites use tiny fonts that make it difficult for people to comfortably take in the relevant information.

Sites that target seniors should use at least 12-point fonts as a default and all sites should give people the option to increase the text size as desired.

Size and spacing of hypertext links

Hypertext links are a necessary navigation tool but it’s important to use large text so that they can easily be seen and clicked.

Make sure there is plenty of white space between the links and avoid clustering them too tightly. This helps to prevent erroneous links and increases the speed at which users can navigate the site.

The same design rules apply to other calls-to-action and navigation buttons, as the bigger and more obvious they are the easier they are to click.

Use different colours to aid navigation

The study showed that seniors easily lose track of where they’ve been when sites fail to use different colours to distinguish between visited and unvisited links.

This also affects youngers users, but seniors were found to be more likely to waste time repeatedly returning to the same place.

Simplify form filling

Seniors have a harder time using search engines and forms, and a greater number were thwarted after trying to use hyphens or brackets when entering phone numbers and credit card details.

We previously blogged tips for improving site search, but in general it’s a good idea to use large text fields and give specific instructions on what information is required.

Here, on the Wiltshire Farm Foods site, one which is geared towards an older customer base, forms are nice and easy, with clear labelling.

Make error messages clear

Older web users can have difficulty reading or understanding error messages, either because the wording is vague or the message’s placement isn’t obvious.

As with other design elements simplicity is key, so make sure the message is obvious and clearly spells out exactly what the problem is and how to fix it.

Here on, which we reviewed last year, the site should explain why the user has made the error, and exactly what format is required.

Better still, they could adapt to accept postcodes with or without spaces, or when users enter the letter ‘O’ where a zero is required.

Avoid major navigation changes

Site redesigns or rebranding are necessary to improve site usability and make sure your business stays up-to-date, however drastic design changes can have a major impact for seniors.

Half of the seniors in the study said they keep a list of steps and instructions about how to use websites they need or often visit.

Therefore any major changes will mean they will struggle to complete the task and may abandon it altogether.